Sword of The Stars II: Lords of Winter: Review

Sword of the Stars II: Kerberos Got Some 4X’plaining To Do.

The intergalactic 4X genre is sadly underrepresented in this generation of PC games. The salad days of Master of Orion, Stars! and Galactic Civilizations seem long past, and gamers have relatively few quality places to turn to in order to get their fix of eXploring the galaxy, eXpanding their civilizations, eXploiting resources to build up those civilizations and ultimately eXterminating their rivals. Currently, the genre is mostly represented by small studios, indie developers keeping the dream alive.

In 2006, Kerberos Productions, a small developer based out of Vancouver, Canada, released a solid entry into the genre called “Sword of the Stars.” Kerberos followed up on this release with three major expansions over three years, as well as a vast number of patches and minor updates to the game, making it one of the best examples of the genre in years. The original Sword of the Stars and its expansions are currently bundled together as The Sword of the Stars Collection, and can be found on Steam for $5.00 on sale, though they generally go for $20.

Well, a true sequel was inevitable, and during this past week Kerberos released Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter. The game promised to offer new factions, better graphics, deeper ship design, and a generally deeper and more interesting game. While this game certainly has the potential to be great, in its current state it is clearly unfinished, buggy and broken, an exercise in intergalactic frustration and disappointment.

A Song Of Spaceships and Planets

A vast playfield to 4X your hearts content on.

Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter, seems to have a lot going for it, in that it has a lot of promise. The game is a pure, nearly traditional, entry into the space-faring 4X genre, whose staples include leading your race across the galaxy, colonizing worlds and researching new technology, designing and building your own ships to do battle and build up your civilization, and eventually making war upon your enemies, often with spectacularly cinematic space-battles. Sword of the Stars II embraces its 4X heritage, theoretically delivering on each of the X’s via deep and intricate systems of gameplay, including six different factions, each with their own game-changing way of traversing the cosmos.

Of course, the original Sword of the Stars games did much of this, and those games work just fine after years of patches, expansions and updates. So what’s new with Sword of the Stars II?

For one, the graphics really are better than the original game’s, but this is to be expected. Frankly, I still find them to be a little too cartoonish, especially the avatar pictures that the player can pick to represent their faction. This is personal preference however.

The difference between the ship design and the avatar pictures is striking.

The game has a number of new technologies that can be researched, encompassing 14 research trees altogether, and like the first game the available technologies are randomized, meaning that each game could see players having access to new and interesting abilities.

There are a huge number of things to research.

As a general matter, Kerberos has added a good number of new systems to the base gameplay of Sword of the Stars II, making it a deeper and more complex game than the original, for better and worse.

As a positive example, things like managing spacecraft in the strategic portion of the game (non-combat) have gotten easier. In that instance, ships are now organized into fleets that can be sent on specific missions and then return home once that mission is complete. The result of this mission-focused system of ship movement is that surveying planets, colonizing, attacking, etc, is all managed ahead of time when you send your ships out in the first place. This system isn’t perfect, as I wish the game made it easier to change the missions of your fleets mid-go (for instance, I could not figure out how to tell a survey fleet to stay put after it finished surveying a system so that it could then colonize a newly discovered planet), but generally, I like this change.

Plus you can randomly get attacked by Space Ghosts and that's kind of cool.

Also, one of the more interesting new systems added to the game is a morale rating for each planet, and even individual populations within planets (as multiple species can live together). Whereas the first game eschewed these kind of minute statistics and factors in favor of a big-picture approach to empire management, things like government debt, military losses and oppressive taxes can damage the morale of your systems in Sword of the Stars II, leading systems to revolt or even setting off a revolution. In the latter case, your empire actually goes into a full on civil war, and your fleets get divided up into where their admirals are from (you assign admirals when constructing the fleets). It’s a great idea, and really the game has a lot of great ideas. It’s a shame that they don’t really play out all that well however.

Irreducible Complexity

Sword of the Stars II is generally a more complex affair than the original.

Before I discuss how the game is unfinished, before I berate Kerberos for releasing a buggy and broken product, I want to make the point that the complexity of Sword of the Stars II is, in my opinion, a misstep for the series, as it has sacrificed a critical element of that made the first game successful and fun: intuitiveness.

Generally, 4X games tend to be complicated affairs, but the games that are the most successful often soften their complexity via good user interfaces, often combining ease of control with good communication of critical information. The Civilization series, while not a space-based 4X game, is a great example of this rule. The game has numerous systems running from the micro to the macro levels, and even so the game does a great job of automating what needs to be automated, alerting the player to what needs to be decided, allowing the player to control things easily, and so on. It is a complex game that is relatively easy to play.

Colonizing planets is still one of the simpler parts of the game.

The original Sword of the Stars, as it exists now, modified by numerous expansions and patches, had a similar charm. The game was complicated, with dozens of technologies to research leading to all sorts of different ship designs and combat considerations, as well as random encounters, huge, sprawling galaxies, etc. Even so, the interface and structure of that game was such that it never became entirely overwhelming, and Kerberos made a conscious decision to automate or leave out certain things like tax levels, morale, production queues, etc, in order to make a game that was easier to pick up and play, but deep enough to keep people interested for months if not years.

It appears that, in Sword of the Stars II, Kerberos decided to put in all of those little systems that they had held back from the first game, and just let the game’s complexity roll.

Take, for instance, the aforementioned morale system, complete with fleet construction and admiral traits. None of this information is communicated to the player in an easy-to-understand format. How do you get more admirals? No idea. What’s the morale of my planets and how can I affect it? The manual offers some general tips, but for the most part is entirely haphazard.

The new interface for buying ships fails to communicate important data

The ship design and building systems also suffer from the same problem. In the prior game, when designing ships, each part was explained, given ratings and context, so you understood what kind of ship you were building and what was on it. In Sword of the Stars II, neither the game, nor the manual, explain a large number of the ship parts, so it’s up to you to hunt this information down in forums or just risk it on your own. Also, Ships are now built by actually creating invoices, a system that could theoretically be useful, as it allows players to save invoices and re-order the same kinds of ships in the future, but because the interface is imperfect, it’s very difficult to see what is being worked on at what time and where, and to change those orders if necessary.

Actually building your ships is also far more complicated than it needs to be.

There are plenty more examples of the increased complexity of the game. For instance, there are now space stations, each with individual upgrades and effects, but keep track of what is where quickly becomes a chore once more than a few are built.

Budgeting is much more intricate in Sword of the Stars II

Also, and this is an area that the first game specifically attempted to avoid, government spending has been expanded, allowing the player to allocate funds differently, leading them to different types of governments. Again, none of this is explained well, nor is it communicated to the player efficiently as the game is played.

This is how all combat now starts, and the game explains NONE of it.

Finally, I should mention that the combat interface has been revamped and changed into something that is, again, far less intuitive. First, the game now features real time space combat on three vertical planes instead of one, but it doesn’t seem to matter much. The combat interface shifted from one that made apparent sense in the original Sword of the Stars, to a mishmash of unlabeled buttons in Sword of the Stars II. Whereas in the original game it was simple to select your ships, move them about, and throw them at the enemy, Sword of the Stars II makes this whole process far more tiresome than it needs to be, and eschews the ability to exit from or pause combat. What buttons are labeled don’t necessary do what they claim to do, but part of this could be because the ship AI is somewhat broken at present. More on that in the bugs section. The big point here is that they attempted to make combat a deeper affair, but only succeeded in making it confusing and irritating.

They took the fun out of combat via this interface (and bugs)

Generally, this is the case with most, if not all, of the new features: they are neat ideas on their own, but because they are difficult to access, understand, and keep track of, they make the game overly complex and detract from the experience. There are more graceful ways to introduce new complexity, but Kerberos was unable to accomplish this task. As it stands, the game doesn’t provide the player with enough information to manage its own complexity, and these new features either get ignored, abandoned, misunderstood, or the game as a whole can quickly become overwhelming.

It seems like Kerberos designed Sword of the Stars II to satisfy some theoretical player that actually felt like Sword of the Stars was too simple. I don’t know who this person is, but I imagine even he is frustrated by the poor user interface and information communication.

Lost In Space

 

None of these options worked. The solution? Get rid of them, clearly.

To say that SOTS II had a rough launch on Steam would be an exercise in understatement. When the $40 game became available to download, thousands of unfortunate purchasers ended up with what was apparently (according to statements on the official forums) an unfinished beta version of the game. Savvy readers may remember that a similar thing happened with the Dead Island launch. Heck, this sort of thing seems rampant. Even Rage launched on Steam with broken drivers and some incomplete option features. Of course, it’s hard to blame Steam and Valve for any of this: they simply upload what the publisher gives them. As such, this was clearly a fuck-up on the part of Paradox and/or Kerberos. Even so, both companies were very up-front about the error and promised a same-day patch that would fix many of the problems. That patch has since come and gone, and unfortunately, even the “complete” version of the game clearly isn’t anywhere near cooked.

In other words, huge parts of the game are simply MIA at the moment.

What sort of things? How about the options menu? That work for you? That’s right, there is NO in-game options menu. There was one in the initial broken release, but none of the buttons did anything. Kerberos’ solution was apparently to just grey it out in the patched version, and let customers rely on a very sparse pre-game options menu to adjust their settings.

There are NO scenarios in the game at launch. Only skirmish maps.

For a game that billed itself as expanding on the fiction of Sword of the Stars, there are actually no scenarios in this release. These were present in the original Sword of the Stars games, and provided a more structured way of playing the game and learning the mechanics. Oh, upon creating a new game and selecting your map, there is certainly a scenario button you can click on, but it does nothing. As it stands, the game is literally a collection of skirmish maps for AI or multiplayer play with the obscure promise of more to come in the future.

I should also mention that they have taken out the ability to alter these maps by including more or less stars, and changing the average distance between them. Systems are still randomly generated, but the size of the maps are now sacrosanct, and there is no random map generator.

The only opening cinematic you'll get right now.

The game also seems to be lacking all of its cinematics. The game opens with a static shot of the Kerberos and Paradox logos, and goes straight into the title screen. I wouldn’t have even noticed this as a missing feature if it were not for the greyed out “cinematics” option on the title screen, or the direct reference to opening cinematics in the game’s online manual.

The four corners of what the game considers to be a tutorial.

Finally, newcomers to the game may find themselves completely lost, because Kerberos decided not to include any kind of tutorial or in-game manual. After fishing around online for a while, I found a 50+ page PDF manual that described maybe 25% of the features in the game (being generous here), so even that wasn’t particularly helpful. To be fair, I am actually not certain if this is technically a missing feature, as Sword of the Stars fans have stated that part of the allure of the game is figuring it all out as you go along. Still, it would be nice if the game explained, for instance, what all the buttons actually did. Tooltips are one way of handling this problem, but in this instance, half of them are nonexistent, and of the tooltips that do exist, a good portion are unviewable, as they appear behind the window you will currently have selected. More on this sort of thing in the bug section.

It’s a Bug Hunt

So here’s the bug section. The game is buggy. No way around it whatsoever. The game’s unfinished and buggy nature can be felt in nearly every facet of the experience.

As I mentioned, the combat is broken, somewhat due to the fact that the interface is almost unusable, but mostly because your own ships don’t seem to have any AI, and can’t actually fight on their own.

The game crashes. A lot. These crashes are sometimes predictable (one game I played the game crashed every time I made it to turn 17, without fail), and sometimes seemingly at random. While the game does do a generally good job of auto saving, the crashes get so bad that it becomes a struggle just to double click the game’s icon again to restart, knowing that you will be back in the same place in just another 20 minutes or so. I should also mention that the crashes got so bad for me at one point that I could not even start the game at all. This required a complete reboot of my computer to fix.

Missing module information

I already stated that the game is missing a large number of tooltips, but beyond that there are quite a few tooltips and pieces of text that are bugged and read as code or “Missing.” This phenomenon is just pervasive enough to constantly remind players that they are using a substandard product. Also, as I mentioned before, some tooltips are entirely unusable as they load behind the window players have selected.

Missing technology information

One of the other major issues with the game is the long load time between screens. Now this varies depending on users, and on my very fast machine I didn’t experience a huge amount of it. From the main menu, somewhat on random, the game would just take about a minute to confirm a selection before moving on. Sometimes it would just move instantly, sometimes it would not. I have read horror stories from users on the forums however that this problem is pervasive throughout the game itself on their machines, so your mileage may vary in this case.

Finally, there is just a general buggyness to the game as a whole. Sometimes units become unselectable. Sometimes screens will freeze or stutter, or the game will select the wrong object. Sometimes combat will just flash by in under a second, insisting that you lost a battle. The buglist on this game is a mile long, and it does no good to list them all out here. Just understand that they are there and they are a big problem.

Promises Promises

This is not the 4X game you are looking for.

My first instinct, upon buying a game as buggy and unfinished as this one, is to be angry and belligerent towards the developers. See my article on Stronghold 3 as an example of this. However, Kerberos and Paradox have done a decent job of getting out in front of the issues surrounding Sword of the Stars II. Public apologies have already been made, multiple patches have already been issued, and refunds have even been offered to some.

The main line of reasoning coming from both the companies as well as longtime series fans: Kerberos is committed to supporting Sword of the Stars II, just like they supported the first game, and so all of these problems will eventually be ironed out.

While I do give Kerberos and Paradox some credit for being forthright with customers, this reasoning is a lot to take on faith. The real problem is that they released an unfinished, buggy game for $40, with the promise that some day, after an indeterminate amount of time, it will be fun to play. This may very well be true, but it feels intensely unfair to have been duped into spending $40 to participate in Sword of the Stars II’s de-facto beta. More than that, they are going to have to do a lot more than just fix the current bugs to make the game playable and fun. Serious additions and/or alterations need to be made to the user interface and to how certain systems work in the game. It is unclear when and if this will happen.

So what’s the verdict? Don’t buy the game. At least now. I honestly do think there is a great (ok, maybe good) game hidden in there somewhere, and the first Sword of the Stars is a very fun experience at $5 or $20, but it could be months or even years before Sword of the Stars II is up to snuff. I would give the game a nice wide berth until then.

About Mike Cantor

Unplayaballa.
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18 Responses to Sword of The Stars II: Lords of Winter: Review

  1. Tim says:

    Hi, just to say; there’s a schedule to fix a lot of these issues, and some explanation, available at http://www.kerberos-productions.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=37&t=22033

    it should be at the least more stable from monday, and there’s already a wiki to help with the lack of information.

    • Mike Cantor says:

      This is good info, especially for those of us who already have the game.

      Let’s hope Monday’s patches help, but I suspect a great deal more than what we get tomorrow is needed.

  2. Bromide says:

    It is with great sadness that this is a pretty accurate reflection on the state of affairs at the moment with SotS2. From what I have read, SotS1 was a little buggy initially, and has been improved upon countless times. I was fortunate enough to buy the “Complete” version with all expansions, and I fell in love with the game immediately – it was and still is awesome!
    Needless to say, I was very excited about SotS2 and am absolutely gutted it was released like this – it’s such a shame. The only positive thing to come out of this was that I got so frustrated with it, that I deleted it in disgust and managed to get round to finishing Dawn of War II.

  3. Evrett says:

    Sots I is awesome for 5$ but only after 5 years of patching. And we have been waiting a year and a half on Kerberos’ promise to fix the last bugs in that game. Some ships still dont work for example.

    Wait 6+ months or more if you really want Sots 2..but my money is that Kerberos will fold from internal pressure and lack of $$$ before then. They didnt have the answers or manpower to put out this game on time and they wont have it to fix it anytime soon.

    Good article.

  4. Tales23 says:

    As a long standing fan of Paradox Interactive, you don’t have to take Paradox’s word that it will fix the issues with the game. Paradox has had a bad habit of releasing buggy games. Hell, only a few of them have ever released perfectly but unlike other companies which do a patch here or there and leave it, Paradox listens to it’s community to improve upon their games.

    Europa Universalis III was a completely different games then it was when it released, and has evolved to the point of being one of my all time favourite games. I believe Paradox when they say they will mold the game into something better. Because it’s what they have always done.

    • Mike Cantor says:

      This may be the case, but even so, it’s a very bad habit.

      When the game is up and running properly, and when it plays well is when I would recommend people buy it.

      Publishing half-finished games with promises to fix them years down the line is an abusive practice, and should be curtailed.

      • Tales23 says:

        True, but the thing is they aren’t some big name company. They are an indie company and they can’t do everything right. They are however admitting that this one was a bit uncalled for and I agree to that.

        And to update everyone, they have promised to have Updates done by the end of the month (NOV) and are offering free DLC and Sword and the Stars 1 to all who want it.

  5. Davyhamer says:

    Faire review….

    I am one of the few who still can’t get past the first turn…. I have a kick ass system and have goten no replys…. I hope they use my 40$ to at least answer my request for help

  6. Riley2504 says:

    Even if all of the bugs were worked out of the game I would still have to say I am extremely disappointed in the direction they took this game. Maybe its my fault for not reading up on it first but the needless level of complexity they have put into this game destroys everything I loved about SotS1. I’ve spent about 20 minutes and haven’t figured out how to move a fleet yet. Unfortunately I don’t have enough gaming time available now to even bother trying to learn a game this poorly done.

  7. Sascha says:

    I don’t feel that Kerberos has been fortright with it’s customers in this issue.

    Right before the release, the CEO announced that he decided to remove a feature or two that would otherwise have caused instability, and he wouldn’t want that to happen. On the overall state of the game, he wished he could call it perfect, but of course there’s always something to find.

    All in all he gave the impession that SotS 2 would be released in excellent condition, and so people would buy it on release with good consciousness.

    It’s only after the release, when the catastrophic state of the game became obvious to everyone, that he admitted that not everything is hunky-dory.

    I think the company would deserve to get sued for fraudulently tricking customers into buying the game with their clearly false statement on launch.

  8. MindScrape says:

    the patch that came out on the 31st has made the game alot more stable than what it was during the weekend. still crashes some but not as often as it once did. also in case you dont feel like reading the comments on KP’s website they have stated that they will be doing several patches every week to bring this game from a buggy mess into something thats actually playable.

    • Bromide says:

      It’s a start for sure – but still horribly short of the mark. I’m not even going to start playing it until it surpasses SotS1 – which is is a LONGGGGGG way off. I don’t see the point in playing it if 50% of the game isn’t there or is disfunctional – crashes or no crashes. It just makes for a frustrating gaming experience – and the whole point of me playing games is to have FUN.

  9. Bromide says:

    I’ll probably hang in there and wait. Ultimately, I’ll buy the game anyway and if my money can help Kerberos along into finishing it, then it’ll be worth it in the long run. What irks my nerves is that lessons seemingly haven’t been learned by Paradox after SotS1. It really is starting to feel like this is a completely deliberate exploitation of the game’s fanbase by Paradox to provide the extra money to Kerberos, to finish the game.
    On one hand, I’m kinda thankful that at least the game will happen because of this (otherwise it may not have been developed at all in the first place). But on the other hand, I agree with several other posters that this is a horrible way to do business, and one that I sincerely hope doesn’t become “best practice” by other publishers – who incidently will be watching the outcome of this with interest I’m sure.
    Can you imagine going to the movies and watching a poorly shot, half dressed up, missing some actors, crappy CGI, poor sound and musical score movie – and then being assured that you can go back 6-12 months later to see the finished version when they have collected enough box office money to finish it? 🙁

  10. Colonel Cabbage says:

    I disagree that the game isn’t fun because of it’s complexity. At least for me, the only thing holding me back from playing it are the bugs, tooltips will come, explanations will come (if you aren’t the kind of person who enjoys discovery) but first and foremost they will fix the technical issues> Other than those I’ve had a great time playing the game (since monday’s patch) there are way less crashes and they will probably have the rest ironed out soon. As for the features that are missing; it still has more depth than any other game I can think of without them, so the fact that it has that and will have more soon makes me excited for the future of this game.However, if you aren’t a patient person, you will probably be better off waiting to play it until it’s “finished”.

  11. Anonymous Customer says:

    @Colonel Cabbage it is not a question of patience, it is a question that you are being sold a 4 wheel car with missing door, hand brake, and sometimes it explodes, and the CEO telling you to be patient, the mechanics will work the kink out. In the mean time you are with what amount to be a broken car.

    In the software industry I expect a bit of bugs, I expect patching, heck some major bug slip past thru Q/A unseen. But something which is borked up should not be released and expect the client to pay in advance. A tad bit of broken feature is OK, but there are limits. Allowing a company to go past those limits and call customer to be “patient” is beyond pale. As the customer we should be the one punishing such company by not buying their stuff and not allowing such a situation. If the company sink under, so be it. Sad, but it is in a capitalist free market a possibility.

    I got my refund by the way.

  12. man face falm says:

    A Car is a bad analogy, you don’t depend on this everyday.

    I’d like to think of it as an investment in a dying genre.

  13. Vidalaac says:

    It is true that the car analogy is not entirely appropriate. And the same can be said about the movie analogy, you can play a strategy game for hundreds of hours, it’s not just a three hours run.

    But that’s not the point. The fact is that they quite simply tricked us into buying their unfinished work… you can try and use any analogy you want but you can’t run away from this conclusion. The first time I read the story about the beta being uploaded instead of the real deal… well, I was genuinely surprised… but what they eventually uploaded was not a finished product. It took me more than a week just to get the damn thing to open properly – heck, they didn’t even placed the opening video they had showed us a few weeks back (the one with the *voice* of the elders… promising their revenge). I know it is not a priority but, really, it can’t take more than a few minutes to put it back into place… it’s just an opening sequence for crying out loud! I understand it is not a priority but if the game doesn’t even star properly you really can’t hope but to start with a bitter taste in your mouth. And then it gets worse… the list of fixes really doesn’t help… some of the things they’re saying it is now fixed is so basic that you get the feeling they hadn’t even worked in the game for the last few months, because they didn’t have the resources to pay their staff anymore.

    So now they received our finance help and are back to work… that’s just great… no, really, I mean it… I want to see the game finished… but now the money flux has ended guys… no one is buying this *future masterpiece* anymore… so what are they going to do? Will they have enough cash to keep working until it is done?

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